HBO’s ‘King in the Wilderness’ reveals the loneliness of his last years Interviews with Martin Luther King’s closest friends reveal the personal cost of his focus on poverty and Vietnam

It’s a popular rallying cry for activists: We have nothing to lose but our chains!

But a new documentary on Martin Luther King Jr. illustrates the costs of calling out the shortcomings of your country, and one of them is loneliness.

In King in the Wilderness, which airs Monday night on HBO, Emmy-winning director Peter Kunhardt (The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross with Henry Louis Gates Jr., Gloria: In Her Own Words, Jim: The James Foley Story) traces the final three years of King’s life through interviews with 19 of his friends and colleagues, including Jesse Jackson, Harry Belafonte, Joan Baez, John Lewis, Andrew Young, Diane Nash and Xernona Clayton. What emerges is a deeply personal portrait of King as human and vulnerable, someone who was not impervious to the criticism directed his way. HBO is making the full-length interviews, about 35 hours’ worth of footage, available on its website the same day.

King in the Wilderness charts the intellectual path that led King to Beyond Vietnam, the controversial speech he delivered at Riverside Church in Harlem, New York, exactly one year before his assassination in Memphis, Tennessee. By 1967, King had identified a triad of oppression, consisting of racism, poverty and militarism. He was trying to convince his followers the three were inextricably linked and that it was impossible to remedy one without addressing the other two.

But as King’s understanding of the world grew more complex and his critique went beyond the barbarism of Jim Crow, it became more difficult to marshal supporters. History is filled with martyrs who eventually find themselves in the wilderness for daring to speak openly about injustice, from Nina Simone to Muhammad Ali to present-day wanderers such as Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid. We want our heroes to shut up and sing, or shut up and grab a gun when your country tells you to, or shut up and play ball, or simply shut up. And when they don’t, we take away the pedestal that allowed them to command our attention in the first place, in the form of album sales, or boxing licenses, or NFL contracts.

When King spoke out publicly against the Vietnam War, friends stopped calling, movement supporters stopped donating and his invitations to speak as a guest preacher began to dwindle. He earned the ire of those who were reluctant to criticize President Lyndon B. Johnson, the man who’d signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. And there wasn’t necessarily a natural home for King in the anti-war movement, which featured young, white draft dodgers who had the luxury of burning the American flag in the street in a way that King and his black cohorts did not.

When you lose the adrenaline rush of dancing in the ring, or captivating an audience from your perch at a piano, or evading a sack, or nourishing souls around the country every Sunday, what’s left? That is the revelation of King in the Wilderness: that a man with a deep faith in the power of love could fall victim to something as common as depression.

Kunhardt presents King as more than an amalgamation of factoids, quotations and important dates. He explores King’s relationship with his father, Martin Luther King Sr., and it’s eye-opening to think of King Jr. as a young man bumping up against the authority of his father, who cast a long shadow as a community leader and patriarch. King, for example, was interested in folding the philosophies of Friedrich Nietzsche into his sermons, while his father, a preacher steeped in black Southern tradition, was not so keen on it.

King didn’t have a natural home in the anti-war movement, which featured young, white draft dodgers who had the luxury of burning the American flag in the street in a way that he and his black cohorts did not.

It’s easy enough to recognize that King paid for the country’s freedom with his life. But there was an earlier price, as King’s vision left his contemporaries feeling betrayed, angry and willing to withdraw the status they had conferred upon him. In the documentary, Clayton recounts how King’s close friends simply wanted to see him smile and laugh again after a year in which he’d done so little of either. She recounted presenting him with a couple of gag gifts at a birthday party in January 1968 in hopes of pulling King into the sun.

If Eyes on the Prize is required viewing for eighth-grade social studies classes, King in the Wilderness feels like an apt follow-up for older students who can identify with feelings of isolation and uncertainty about one’s place in the world. It broadens him beyond the two-dimensional rendering so many schoolchildren are presented with every year in advance of the King holiday. That seems especially valuable now as a generation of young people (including King’s own granddaughter) mobilize and agitate for a country with less gun violence and more compassion.

“I believe he died a happy man,” Clayton told an audience at Riverside Church after a recent screening of King in the Wilderness. “I really do.” She kept nodding as she repeated the words, and it was as though, 50 years later, she wasn’t just saying it to soothe those gathered in the pews, but to remind herself too.

As anti-gun violence protesters converge on Washington, football great Calvin Hill recalls the teenage activists of the civil rights movement Today’s teenage activists follow in the footsteps of African-Americans in the ‘60s

Legendary Dallas Cowboys running back Calvin Hill remembers how he came to understand what he was fighting for during the civil rights movement. He grew up outside Baltimore and was bused to a segregated elementary school before attending an elite private high school in the Bronx, New York, where he was one of only five black students.

“The day we marched on Washington” in 1963, Hill was 16. “There was such a spirit of people just hugging and joining hands and singing together, I thought segregation was going to end, you know, that day,” he recalled.

On Saturday, more than half a million people are expected to gather in downtown Washington, D.C., for the March for Our Lives anti-gun violence rally, and a great many of them will be young. The demonstration was conceived after last month’s school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of teenager-led protests that have gained high-profile friends, enemies and national attention. But this is not the first time the nation has witnessed the power of youth activism. This anti-gun violence movement mirrors a protest tradition that decades ago recognized the moral sway of children who put their bodies, and often their lives, on the frontlines of a changing nation.

“If you look at what the civil rights movement was, it wasn’t necessarily about blacks wanting to go to school with whites. It was about wanting to have equal resources and equal opportunities,” said Hill, 71, a consultant for player development for the Cowboys who lives with his wife, Janet, in Great Falls, Virginia. And that desire fueled a movement of African-Americans, including some who were very young, who filled the streets of the nation.

It’s an era that the four-time Pro Bowler and first Cowboy to rush for more than 1,000 yards in a season (not to mention the father of former NBA All-Star Grant Hill) remembers well. He grew up with the signposts, totems, deprivations and dangers of Jim Crow segregation. Hill often visited relatives in South Carolina, and as a youngster he thought perhaps ginger ale flowed from “Whites Only” water fountains. One day, with his cousins as lookouts, he took a sip from one, then dashed around the corner.

When his cousins clamored to know what white water tasted like, Hill told them, “I think it tastes just like the water in the other fountain.” He remembers being struck, he says, “by the silliness of the whole thing.”

Later, as a seventh-grader who’d been bused to black schools, he attended a student council meeting at the local all-white high school and was stunned by the quality of the facilities. “They had a gym that looked like a movie theater with permanent seats. We had a gymnasium that became an auditorium when you put seats on the floor.” The white school’s library was three times as big, and it had air conditioners in the windows.

When his cousins clamored to know what water from the white fountain tasted like, Hill told them, “I think it tastes just like the water in the other fountain.”

Hill attended the progressive Riverdale Country School in New York on scholarship for high school. The school invited Martin Luther King Jr. to speak, and husband-and-wife actors and activists Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee were friends of some of the parents. The month after the March on Washington, he joined fellow students in New York to protest the church bombing by white supremacists that killed four young African-American girls in Birmingham, Alabama. He also attended sit-ins and protests in Baltimore.

Civil rights leaders made a strategic decision to put young people front and center in the protests to put a visual emphasis, on television and in newspapers, on the evils of segregation, and to demonstrate the implications of civil rights for the future black youth and the soul of the country. The wave of students who answered the call added to the iconography of the movement:

In 1957, the National Guard and a snarling white mob blocked the entrance to Arkansas Central High School by the Little Rock Nine, the youngest of whom was 14.

In the 1963 Birmingham Children’s Crusade, dogs and hoses were turned on children, and the images of them standing up until they fell gained a global audience.

Freeman Hrabowski, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, was arrested as a 12-year-old in Birmingham and recalled that when King visited protesters in prison he told them, “What you do this day will have an impact on children yet unborn.”

A 17-year-old civil rights demonstrator, defying an anti-parade ordinance of Birmingham, Ala., is attacked by a police dog on May 3, 1963. On the afternoon of May 4, 1963, during a meeting at the White House with members of a political group, President Kennedy discussed this photo, which had appeared on the front page of that day’s New York Times.

AP Photo/Bill Hudson

Hill was the same age then as the new wave of protesters now converging on Washington, and he calls that need to change what you feel must be changed a natural inclination for those old enough for idealism and too young to be jaded. “To sin by silence when we should protest makes cowards out of men,” Hill said, quoting poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox.

He recalls visiting his grandfather when he was around 7 and, along with another cousin his age, going into a clothing and fabric store with another cousin who was 14. A white teenage girl struck up a conversation with Hill, and he told her she should talk to his teen cousin since “my cousin likes girls.” He then told the teen cousin he should talk to the white girl, since she liked boys. The 14-year-old “immediately got a look on his face and said, ‘Let’s go.’ And when we walked to my grandfather’s house, instead of going along the road, we walked through the woods,” Hill recalled. “And I couldn’t understand why he was doing that.” When they got to the house, he was berated by his aunt, who warned him never to do that again.

Hill thought about that incident when he saw the casket of Emmett Till at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. One of the Four Freedoms that President Franklin D. Roosevelt talked about was the “freedom from fear anywhere … in the world,” Hill said, and that’s part of what young people then and now are fighting for.

The civil rights movement was also filled with young white people who marched and, in some cases, died. The murders of white activists Andrew Goodman, 20, and Michael Schwerner, 24, of New York City, along with black activist James Chaney, 21, caused a national furor. And in the current protest moment, the white activists have gotten younger and have sought to strengthen ties with young black protesters from communities victimized by gun violence. Hill sees their voices as a hopeful sign.

“You see the courage of so many people who are jumping out there instead of just sitting back not saying anything,” he said. “You see it with the young kids in Florida, in the civil rights movement and the anti-war demonstration. You’ve seen it in Black Lives Matter.”

The former football great and civil rights veteran calls all “these movements an effort to move towards the ideals of a more perfect union.” Older people become resigned to the status quo, but it’s the young people who say, “ ‘Hey, this is an issue, and we’re not going to stand for it anymore.’ ”

Many will marvel Saturday when the eyes of the nation turn to the teenage activists who insist against the odds that they can change the world. But among African-Americans, not only has the idea that a child shall lead the way always been the case, in some of our darkest moments, it’s been an article of faith.

Oscar-nominated film about Emmett Till contemplates how racial terror affects those left behind Kevin Wilson Jr., the director of ‘My Nephew Emmett,’ is still in film school

Kevin Wilson Jr. has spent more than half his life thinking about Emmett Till and the night he was murdered.

A few days from now, he might just win an Oscar for it.

Wilson, 28, is the director of My Nephew Emmett, which is nominated for an Academy Award for best live action short film. The film looks at the day Till was kidnapped from the viewpoint of his uncle, Mose Wright, the relative Till was visiting in Mississippi in the summer of 1955.

When Wilson was an undergraduate studying journalism and mass communication at North Carolina A&T University, he mounted a play about Till. That one adopted Till’s own perspective as an audacious 14-year-old boy from Chicago going South to visit relatives. Wilson had begun working on the play when he was a 15-year-old student at Hillside High School in Durham, North Carolina, which has one of the most respected theater programs in the state.

It’s terrifying, as a black person, to put yourself in the shoes of Till, an innocent snatched from his bed, kidnapped, tortured, murdered and thrown into the Tallahatchie River like so much garbage, all because he’d made the mistake of co-existing for a few moments with a white woman named Carolyn Bryant.

You know the story: Till was at a grocery store in Money, Mississippi. Bryant accused him of whistling at her and later lied to federal prosecutors, telling them that Till had touched her. Bryant’s husband, Roy, and his half-brother J.W. Milam rode to the Wright house the night of the alleged interaction and took Till at gunpoint. When his broken body was recovered from the Tallahatchie, his mother, Mamie Till, insisted that his casket remain open at his funeral for the world to see what had happened to him. Till’s body was eventually exhumed and reburied, and his original casket is now on display at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.

Wilson learned that story when he was 5 years old. His mother, now 54, had not yet been born when Till was killed, but the story reverberated through her childhood just the same. In 1995, she told it to Wilson, her only child, whom she was raising alone. It was a way of protecting him. That’s the legacy of Jim Crow and the terrorism of the lynching era: Half a century after Till’s death, his killers are still robbing black children of the right to grow up peacefully naïve. Wilson has two children of his own, and he plans to educate them similarly.

“It’s still very much relevant because we have, still, people of color, even in present day, who are being killed and no one is being held accountable for it,” Wilson said by phone from Los Angeles a few days before the Academy Awards. “So I think until we get to the point where a life is taken and we can just automatically say, ‘OK, a life was taken. There’s no debate. Someone is being held accountable for it,’ we have to continue telling those stories.”

Half a century after Till’s death, his killers are still robbing black children of the right to grow up peacefully naïve.

Although Wilson speaks with the authority of a filmmaker many years his senior, he won’t finish film school at New York University until later this year. He’s one of two Spike Lee protégés contending for awards Sunday night. The other is Mudbound director Dee Rees, who, along with co-writer Virgil Williams, was nominated for best adapted screenplay.

Lee brought Rees to speak to his class last semester, Wilson said, and he also gave Wilson the funds to finish his film when he came up short in postproduction. Once Wilson decided as an undergraduate that he was more interested in directing than acting, he spent a summer immersing himself in Lee’s work. He watched Do the Right Thing every single day, and he read everything he could find that the famed director had published, including his journals.

Do The Right Thing is the movie that made me fall in love with cinema,” Wilson said.

That love is evident in My Nephew Emmett. Wilson insisted on filming on location in Mississippi, although it upped the production costs, and he treats the story with the intellect and considered beauty that’s typical of the Disciples of Spike. Shot by cinematographer Laura Valladao, My Nephew Emmett forces its audience to think about space and proximity. When Bryant (Ethan Leaverton) and Milam (Dane Rhodes) ride on the Wright house and threaten Mose at gunpoint, they do so under the cover of night. There’s no physical distance in this crime — the men are close enough to wet Mose’s face with spittle. So often, the crimes that took place against black people during Jim Crow, whether it was lynching or sexual assault, happened in small towns where victims knew their assailants, a twisted flip side of the way small-town life is often celebrated as simple and bucolic. The Jim Crow era was marked by physical closeness and heavily enforced psychological distance, a theme Rees explores in Mudbound as well.

In My Nephew Emmett, Mose Wright is forced to decide whether to sacrifice Till to his attackers or subject the entire family to similar treatment by refusing to give up his nephew. The threat of sexual assault looms when one of the attackers grabs Mose’s wife, Elizabeth, played by Jasmine Guy.

“I’m a father, and I was curious about that feeling of having to decide between your son, or nephew in this case, and the rest of your family,” Wilson said. “It’s an impossible decision to make. And then what happens after that, after you make that decision. I think that Mose’s story is one of extreme courage; to be able to identify these men on camera, he was putting his life at risk. His entire family had to leave that home. They didn’t go back to that home after that night. They all moved back up to Chicago eventually.”

My Nephew Emmett is part of a wave of new projects about Till. Taraji P. Henson is producing and starring as Mamie Till in a film that John Singleton is directing. Steven Caple Jr., the director taking over the Creed sequel from Ryan Coogler, is writing an HBO miniseries about Till produced by Jay-Z and Will Smith.

“Mose’s story is one of extreme courage; to be able to identify these men on camera, he was putting his life at risk. His entire family had to leave that home.”

Wilson is a good example of why it’s worth paying attention to shorts, even if you’re a casual film buff. It’s not always easy to see all of the contenders in one place, and few movie theaters screen them (My Nephew Emmett is available on iTunes). But they can be a good predictor of future success and often offer glimpses of a director’s storytelling acumen because their brevity demands discipline. For example, Roger Ross Williams, the director who won the Oscar for best documentary short for Music by Prudence, went on to create the tender and inventive feature-length documentary Life, Animated. Damien Chazelle initially made Whiplash as a short before turning it into the feature-length project of the same name. It won three Oscars — for best supporting actor (J.K. Simmons), sound mixing, and film editing — and was nominated for best picture and best adapted screenplay.

Wilson is now trying to find funding for his next project, a feature-length thriller. Sunday, he’ll be in a room full of people with the deep pockets to help him.

“My goal is to be able to make a feature film every year and do television in between or commercials in between and plays in between,” Wilson said. “To be creating every day.”

24 books for white people to read beyond Black History Month These great reads will help any reader discover the rich range of the African-American experience

For many years I was a clueless white guy. I suffered from one-ness. What I really needed was two-ness, and maybe three-ness and four-ness. I came to see my whiteness not as privilege but as insufficiency, thanks to W. E. B. Du Bois and his 1903 book The Souls of Black Folk.

In a remarkable passage, the great scholar, author and activist described the Negro as “a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world, — a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eye of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness, — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideas in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”

Here is the good news. I am not there yet, but I am gaining on two-ness. My white skin is no longer a prison of cluelessness. With the help of African-American friends and colleagues, I am beginning to see America through the eyes of not the Other but others. Through their generosity, I have been invited to ask questions. I heard or saw things I didn’t understand. I did not yet know how to learn, nor did I have the courage to ask a question that might come off as racist. My fear was met by encouragement from the likes of Rev. Kenny Irby, DeWayne Wickham, Dr. Karen Dunlap, Keith Woods, Dr. Lillian Dunlap. “Don’t worry,” they indicated by one means or another. “Ask away. No one is going to leave the room or show you the door.”

Some of my clueless questions:

“When I see a police car, unless I am speeding, I think protection. Tell me why when you see a cop car you may think oppression?”

“I don’t get the absence of so many black fathers in the lives of their children. What is up with that?”

“I have learned to hate the N-word. When I hear it from black rappers, should I be offended?”

“I keep running into this idea of ‘good hair’ vs. ‘bad hair.’ As someone with very bad hair, I think that anyone with any kind of hair has good hair. What am I missing?”

There came a time during these interrogations when I felt a little fatigue setting in from my colleagues. And then Karen Dunlap, my boss and president of the Poynter Institute, made it explicit. It gets tiring, she explained, bearing the burden of white people’s ignorance about black people and African-American culture. “You know,” she gave me a Sunday school teacher look, “you could read something.”

Read something. Yes, read something!

And so I have. Over the past two decades I have developed quite a nice collection of what I might generally describe as African-American literature, some of it written by white journalists or scholars but most of it created by black poets, playwrights, scholars, novelists, essayists and critics. My collection is now large enough to be displayed, and I recently did just that in the library of the Poynter Institute.

I am not claiming this to be an expert collection of works, and certainly not a model one. But it is my collection, and I believe it has made me a better friend, colleague, parent, citizen and human being. I offer this list, with brief annotations, at the END of Black History Month to encourage readers not to limit their learning to the shortest month of the year.

So please learn, grow — and enjoy.


  • My Soul Is Rested: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement in the Deep South, by Howell Raines. A superb oral history of the key moments and key figures of the struggle.
  • The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother, by James McBride. “What color is God?” a dark-skinned boy asks his light-skinned mother. “God is the color of water.”
  • Reporting Civil Rights (Parts One and Two) Library of America edition of great American journalism on race and social justice, 1941-1973.
  • The Authentic Voice: The Best Reporting on Race and Ethnicity, edited by Arlene Morgan, Alice Pifer and Keith Woods. Rich examples reveal the power of inclusiveness in all the stories we tell.
  • The Sound of Freedom: Marian Anderson, the Lincoln Memorial, and the Concert That Awakened America, by Raymond Arsenault. A great biography of a great American artist by the historian who also gave us Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice.
  • Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice, by Phillip Hoose. Before Rosa Parks became an American icon, a young teenage girl, Claudette Colvin, refused to give up her seat on a bus. Written for young readers, but important for all.
  • The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander. First came slavery, then came segregation, then came mass incarceration.
  • Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Framed as a letter to his adolescent son, the author digs down to consequences of the continuing exploitation of black people in America. By the author who has made the most eloquent case in favor of reparations for continuing effects of slavery.
  • Beloved, by Toni Morrison, winner of the Nobel Prize for literature. “Stares unflinchingly into the abyss of slavery.” Another must-read is The Bluest Eye, a terrifying novel about cultural definitions of beauty and the tragedy of self-hatred.
  • Fences, by August Wilson. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for drama, this play depicts what it means for a father to love his son — even at times when he doesn’t like him.
  • Woodholme: A Black Man’s Story of Growing Up Alone, by DeWayne Wickham. An orphan, black and poor, grows up to be one of America’s most prominent newspaper columnists.
  • Crossing the Danger Water: Three Hundred Years of African-American Writing, edited by Deirdre Mullane. If I had to recommend a single volume, this anthology would be it: more than 700 pages of history, literature and insight.
  • In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, by Alice Walker. Glowing essays expressed in what the author of The Color Purple calls “Womanist Prose.”
  • March (Books One, Two and Three), a trilogy, graphic-novel style, on the life and times of congressman John Lewis, with Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell. A work for adults and young readers.
  • Extraordinary, Ordinary People: A Memoir of Family, by Condoleezza Rice. This family memoir by the former U.S. secretary of state carries us back to when she was 8 years old and her young friends were murdered in the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.
  • Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63, by Taylor Branch. Widely hailed by critics of all races as “a vivid tapestry of America.”
  • Race Matters, by Cornel West. From W. E. B. Du Bois to Cornel West, African-American intellectuals have helped Americans of all colors understand the sources of racism and the need for change.
  • The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, James Weldon Johnson. The 1912 short novel narrates what it means for a person of mixed race to “pass for white” within the system of American apartheid.
  • The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation, by Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff. Winner of a Pulitzer Prize. The stories behind the stories of civil rights, including the inspirational courage and leadership of African-American journalists and publishers.
  • On the Bus with Rosa Parks, by Rita Dove. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, her poetry captures a unique vision of the love and spirit of those who struggled against segregation.
  • Soul on Ice, by Eldridge Cleaver. Bought this as a college student in 1968 along with Look Out, Whitey! Black Power’s Gon’ Get Your Mama! by Julius Lester. Written from a California state prison by a key figure in the Black Panther movement.
  • Black and White Styles in Conflict, by Thomas Kochman. Are black people and white people the same — or different? Turns out, the answer is “both,” according to the white sociologist who drills down into American culture to reveal the sources of our misunderstanding.
  • The Fire Next Time, by James Baldwin. Framed as a letter to his young nephew on the 100th anniversary of emancipation. A searing call for justice.
  • The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes. The poet was black a black man in a white world, a gay man in a straight world. His experience of two-ness created, I would argue, one of the most impressive bodies of poetry in American history. Were there not an unofficial color line in the Pulitzer Prize judging, he would have won — and more than once.

In building this list, I emphasize again that it is only special in that it is mine, and in that it has led me to a place I wanted and needed to be. There are countless worthy works not on my list, and countless more that are soon to be written. If I may borrow a phrase from the late Julius Lester: Look out, Whitey! Read some of these books and, who knows, you may get a clue. May there be two-ness in your future — and more.

HBO to broadcast Anna Deavere Smith’s show on the school-to-prison pipeline Playwright reworked ‘Notes From the Field’ after the killings of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice and Philando Castile

Actress and playwright Anna Deavere Smith is a master of verbatim theater, a marriage between documentary storytelling and the stage that involves the actor re-enacting the words of her subjects. Her latest work, which is debuting on HBO on Saturday at 8 p.m., is Notes From the Field, a one-woman show that delves into the school-to-prison pipeline.

If you’re not a theater nerd, you’re probably more familiar with Deavere Smith from her guest star turns as Rainbow’s mother on black-ish or as the lip-pursing-but-ultimately-loving hospital administrator Gloria Akalitus from Nurse Jackie.

For years, Deavere Smith, 67, who is also a professor at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, has used her one-woman shows to examine race relations and other complicated social problems. Her career has provided a blueprint on how to produce art with a conscience without making it dogmatic.

Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities (1992) looked at the Crown Heights riot of 1991 from the perspectives of both black and Jewish residents. Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 (1994) was about the Rodney King riots. Let Me Down Easy (2008) was about health care and the fragility of human life.

All were constructed from the same process: Deavere Smith traveled across the country to interview hundreds of people — for Notes From the Field, she interviewed 250 — and distilled them down to the 20 or so most effective and moving accounts. Then, Deavere Smith recreates these people on stage: their voices, their clothes, their mannerisms, their emotions, their words. She is a reporter in an actor’s body, and her expeditions in search of the truth earned her the George Polk Career Award in journalism from Long Island University last year.

“I had content that I felt that I needed to rush to get onstage and a brief window where Americans were thinking about race.”

“One of the deans of political journalism, David Broder, said to me The New York Times should change that little thing ‘All the news that’s fit to print’ to ‘All the news that’s fit to print — by deadline,’ ” Deavere Smith said during an interview at HBO’s offices in New York. “I have a much longer, fatter deadline. Yes, I’m told, ‘This is previews and this is opening night’ and I have to be ready. But … I’m lingering and lumbering around in a way that [reporters] can’t. I’m like a cow. I gather all this stuff, and then I just sit around and chew it.”

For Notes From the Field, Deavere Smith spoke with experts, teachers and lawmakers. But she also interviewed people whose voices often get lost in the debate over the brokenness of our criminal justice and public school systems: the students and inmates who pass through them.

One account from Denise Dodson, a prisoner at the Maryland Correctional Institution, is particularly wrenching. Dodson speaks about how getting an education while incarcerated has been pivotal in changing the way she sees herself. Still, she told Deavere Smith that she thinks it’s fair that she’s imprisoned on charges of conspiracy and attempted murder. Dodson’s boyfriend killed the man who was trying to rape her, mid-act. The overwhelming majority of women who are imprisoned are survivors of domestic or intimate partner abuse.

Deavere Smith originally staged a shorter version of Notes From the Field in 2014 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and brought it to New York in 2016. The New York Times called it “wonderfully energizing” and labeled Deavere Smith “the American theater’s most dynamic and sophisticated oral historian.”

She had written and researched it before Michael Brown, before Tamir Rice, before Philando Castile, before Walter Scott. Since then, she’s updated it. The HBO adaptation includes Deavere’s depictions of Bree Newsome, the activist and artist who was arrested in June 2015 after she scaled the flagpole of the South Carolina Statehouse to remove the Confederate flag that hung there, and Niya Kenny, the former student at Spring Valley High School in Richland County, South Carolina, who filmed her classmate being dragged from her desk and handcuffed by a school resource officer.

“I wasn’t planning to actually make a full-fledged play out of my project, but I did because I had content that I felt that I needed to rush to get onstage and a brief window where Americans were thinking about race,” Deavere Smith said, citing the cellphone videos of police killing unarmed black people. “These windows are always brief, and in fact, I think it is not a picture that is as strong right now as it was, say, in 2015, because other things are happening and some of those things are distractions.”

“I don’t need to know any more smart people. I’d like to meet more kind people.”

Deavere Smith was participating in a panel discussion with CNN commentator Van Jones and former Obama White House chief of staff Valerie Jarrett recently at New York’s 92nd Street Y recently when she reiterated that an actor’s greatest tool is empathy. That empathy, combined with curiosity, results in the most emotionally arresting performance of Notes From the Field, when Deavere Smith recreates the words of Allen Bullock, the protester who filmed the arrest of Freddie Gray.

Her performance, filmed in front of a live audience at Second Stage Theater in New York, is kinetic and engaging. Her face is superimposed on a huge screen behind her as she walks the stage, video camera in hand, sporting a Copwatch hoodie. She recreates Bullock’s anguish at witnessing Gray being thrown into a Baltimore police wagon, his anger as he saw officers restraining Gray with leg shackles and dragging him away, simply for the mistake of making eye contact with them. Deavere Smith challenges the audience to see Gray as both subject and object.

Despite a dramatic deep dive that complements the work of Michelle Alexander (The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness) and Ava DuVernay (13th), Deavere Smith isn’t ready to call herself a prison abolitionist, like those who want to raze the prison-industrial complex entirely. But she thinks efforts to ban The New Jim Crow from prisons, or shut down prison libraries altogether, are misguided.

“It’s terrible. Terrible,” Deavere Smith said. “They can try to ban it all they want, but you and I both know that the walls of prisons are very porous.”

Although she’s arguably more knowledgeable about schools and prisons than a majority of Americans at this point, Deavere Smith avoids being prescriptive. When it comes to prisons, she’s not Angela Davis, and she’s similarly agnostic about charter schools despite the fact that her reporting led her to conclude that American public schools are “a disaster.” They often fail poor students, students of color, disabled students and students for whom English is a second language, and they’re more segregated today than they were in the late 1960s.

“Most of the people I know who have charter schools want to be able to boast and brag about success and how many kids they send to college,” Deavere Smith said. “And even those things make me nervous when that’s the way they talk about the experience. ‘Well, we’re sending every single person or every single person in our class graduated with such and such SAT score. They’re all going to college.’

“And you go, ‘OK, great.’ But something about it bothers me, and I think what bothers me is that there’s only one measuring stick for success. I know a lot of smart people. I don’t need to know any more smart people. I’d like to meet more kind people. I’d like to meet more generous people. I’d like to meet more forgiving people. … I’d like to see them get commended. You know, smart’s just overrated, as far as I’m concerned.”

On this MLK holiday, it’s important to know how Memphis Greenspace took down those Confederate statues The South’s historical parks for too long have held racist symbols and histories

When a group of African-American men hit upon a strategy to rip statues of Confederate leaders Nathan Bedford Forrest and Jefferson Davis from Memphis’ parks, they did more than remove images of racists from places of honor to places of obscurity.

They wrote the first chapter of a how-to manual on how black people can begin to liberate their leisure spaces from racist symbols and racist histories.

After Tennessee’s historical commission denied, once again, Memphis’ request to remove from two parks the statue of Forrest, the Confederate general who led a massacre of hundreds of surrendering black Union soldiers at Fort Pillow in 1864 and who was an early leader of the Ku Klux Klan, and Davis, who was president of the Confederacy, a group of black men formed Memphis Greenspace Inc.

Because the Tennessee Heritage Act doesn’t apply to private parks, they were able to persuade the city to sell the parks to them for $1,000 each. Then, in the dark of night on Dec. 21, cranes arrived, tore the statues of Forrest and Davis from their bases and hauled them away.

While Greenspace was formed to get rid of the Confederate statues, its actions should shine light on the fact that, like in Memphis, many parks and recreational spaces throughout the nation are fraught with racist symbols and racist histories that repel many African-Americans — and that it’s way past time to flip the script on that.

This predicament, in fact, was the subject of a 2016 study by KangJae Lee, an assistant professor at the University of Missouri whose research centers on parks and recreation. After examining findings that show most visitors to national and state parks are disproportionately white, he looked at why black residents who live near Cedar Hill State Park in Cedar Hill, Texas, rarely go there.

His work revealed a legacy of Jim Crow. For generations, their parents and grandparents were barred from the park, contributing to a cultural disposition that kept them away, not to mention the fact that Cedar Hill Park was once a large slave plantation — a fact that goes unmentioned at the park’s historical sites and feeds into black resentment.

Kind of like how Forrest’s history of being a Klansman and a slave trader were nowhere to be found on his statue.

Other ghosts of racism haunt city recreational spaces.

In Savannah, according to Donald Grant’s 1993 book The Way It Was in the South: The Black Experience in Georgia, an 1866 law barred black children from its parks unless they were accompanied by white children, and in 1890, when bicycling became popular, it forbade black people from using its bike paths.

In 1911, around the time Confederate statues began to be erected in many public spaces in the South, all of Atlanta’s parks were off-limits to black people, and by 1926, they could only use three of its parks. Many, in fact, were arrested for walking through the “white parks” on the way to work.

That scenario resonates with Van Turner Jr., director of Memphis Greenspace. He said one of the factors that drove him to take down the statues of Forrest and Davis was the fact that they were grim reminders of a time when his father and other black people weren’t allowed in those parks unless they were with a white person.

Confederate symbols in public spaces also conjure images of oppression in Jacksonville (Florida) Confederate Park, which sits north of downtown and has a monument to women of the Confederacy, stirring resentment in many of the African-Americans who live near the area.

A Confederate monument erected in 1898, at the beginning of the Jim Crow era, in downtown Jacksonville’s Hemming Plaza praises the Confederate soldier for “deeds immortal” and “heroism unsurpassed.”

Sixty-two years later, African-American civil rights demonstrators would be beaten bloody in that same place by racists wearing Confederate uniforms and wielding ax handles.

No mention of that in Hemming.

Yet, as Memphis Greenspace has shown, that past doesn’t have to be black people’s future when it comes to parks and recreational spaces.

Besides demonstrating and strategizing to expunge racist monuments from recreational spaces, a broader purpose exists here. That purpose is to persuade black people that they are entitled to enjoy recreational spaces that their tax dollars were supporting even during a time when they were either intimidated, or outright barred, from enjoying them.

Brothers like Turner have shown the way. And while the strategy that Memphis Greenspace used may not necessarily be fit for other places grappling with how to take down monuments honoring racists, their actions can be used to begin a blueprint to empower black people with the belief that they deserve to enjoy public spaces that white people have always enjoyed.

That’s because although those places may hold memories of past pain, they also hold potential for future health, for battling the obesity and inactivity that disproportionately plague African-Americans.

And now that we have a way to get rid of monuments to white supremacists who died to keep us out of those public spaces, it’s time for us to begin to claim them as our own.

Behind the scenes of ‘Black Lightning’ reveals the intersection of race, social justice and culture Jefferson Pierce just might be DC Comics’ most complex character yet, and here’s why

The CW’s newest comic-book-turned-TV-series Black Lightning is the first African-American DC superhero to have his own stand-alone comic title and premieres Jan. 16 — the day after Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

The series follows Jefferson Pierce (played by Cress Williams), a retired superhero who is forced to return as Black Lightning after nine years when the rise of the local gang, The One Hundred, threatens his family and leads to increased crime and corruption in the community. The gang leader is Tobias Whale, played by Los Angeles rapper Marvin “Krondon” Jones III.

Jones best describes his villainous character as a mix between the former Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, who put the city through a corruption scandal so vast that it accelerated Detroit into bankruptcy, and Detroit drug kingpin Big Meech, who made an estimated $270 million in sales before his 30-year prison sentence.

Unlike other superhero shows, Black Lightning isn’t battling two-headed monsters and aliens, but the realistic and metaphorical villains who exist in the modern world — gangs, gun violence, drugs, sex trafficking, corrupt politicians, racism and racial profiling.

Black Lightning reopens the dialogue about the best approach to the fight for justice — mirroring King’s stance of nonviolent protest versus Malcolm X’s defense of justice achieved “by any means necessary.”

On one hand, Jefferson is a community hero as the principal of a charter high school that was a safe haven from violence and gangbangers. In the comic book, he is one of the athletes who raised a fist during the 1968 Olympics during the national anthem. But on the other hand, as Black Lighting, he is the vigilante whom the community rallies behind after they’ve lost faith in an ineffective law enforcement and justice system.

The Undefeated visited the set of Black Lightning in Atlanta and spoke with executive producer Salim Akil and several members of the main cast to talk about the show’s deeper meaning and impact they hope to spark in viewers.


Tracey Bonner as LaWanda and Cress Williams as Jefferson Pierce

Richard Ducree/The CW

Why is it important to have a black superhero on TV fighting real-life issues happening in today’s world?

Cress Williams (Black Lightning/Jefferson Pierce): It’s definitely and desperately important to have everyone represented because superheroes are also role models [and we as a whole] need to learn more about different cultures and races. In order for this genre of superheroes to thrive, it has to diversify and evolve by exploring how it would be if we lived in a world where superheroes existed. How would they help with real-life problems and what challenges they face? It’s a way to see what’s really going on in the world and generate discussions around it.

Christine Adams (Lynn Stewart, Pierce’s ex-wife): These are stories that need to be told from the black perspective. But that doesn’t mean it’s only for the black audience; it’s for everyone, because the issues we address are coming straight out of today’s newspapers. Many times when we read stories on gun violence and gangs, we only see them as bad people. No one is just a bad person. People are complex, and it’s a series of events that leads them to the things they do. We easily look at people from a distance and make a judgment before really learning what shaped them to who they are today.

Damon Gupton (Inspector Henderson): It’s been time. We’re such an important fabric of popular culture that it only makes sense that we have a black superhero. As a child, I was a fan of Superman and X-Men, but if I had seen a superhero that looked like an uncle and was commenting on something that I had seen down the block from me, I’d feel like I’d have a voice and be empowered.

We see different approaches to fighting for change on the show. From Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and other approaches. What are the reasons behind your characters’ approaches?

Salim Akil (executive producer): It’s a debate that keeps going on inside of me, especially now that I have younger boys. I understand extreme violence, what a gunshot or a dead person on the street looks like, from my own life and friends’, so I know what violence is. It never leaves anyone … but in a certain way it leads to freedom. Nobody ever fought for freedom without adapting.

Williams: When Jefferson was younger, he flirted with the idea of just taking the Malcolm X way until his wife gave him the ultimatum after she couldn’t take another night of him putting his life on the line. So he went the Martin Luther King route for nine years as a school principal, not using his powers until he realized that although the school was thriving, everything around it wasn’t [and eventually the school would become affected too].

Yes, education, positivity and nonviolence need to be paramount, but sometimes you just gotta mess some things up, and Jefferson begins to realize that it takes both.

Nafessa Williams (Anissa Pierce): Anissa fights the Malcolm X fight all the way even before she has powers and becomes Thunder. Malcolm X is one of her heroes, which creates an ongoing back-and-forth with she and her dad [who wants to protect her from the dangers of taking that route]. [As Black Lighting inspires hope to the community], she sparks strength and boldness, knowing what your purpose is and literally walking in it every day.

Gupton: Henderson has the unfortunate position of being a law enforcer at a time when people are looking for results at seeing things get better. He’s telling the community that he’s trying, but they don’t believe him, so they call him names like ‘Uncle Tom’ or ‘Oreo.’ It puts him in a rock and a hard place because he truly believes he can make a difference in the community.

It’s got to mean something to him that the community has a sense of pride in Black Lightning as the guy who can fix their problems. Maybe a little bit of him wants that, or just a thank you, from time to time.

How will viewers relate to Lynn Stewart in not wanting her family to put themselves in danger?

Adams: It’s a push and pull for Lynn, which will be a very relatable concept for viewers. It’s hard when your children aspire to do good in the world, like serve in the military, but ultimately it is endangering their own lives. I’m sure for Lynn, she was hoping her loved ones would have gone about it as teachers or social activists but not superheroes.

How do you personally relate to these characters?

Akil: I’m definitely using a lot of my own life experiences. Jefferson and Tobias are both a part of me and the people I grew up with in Richmond [California]. My mom went to prison a few times and I was on my own for a bit, but one of the things she would always tell me is: ‘If I ever see you out here selling drugs, I will kill you.’

Young African-American men and women are self-motivated, so since my father wasn’t around and all of the men I knew were hustlers, I’d watch Johnny Carson and The Honeymooners and try to figure out what that world was. Then I turned to Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali. I happened to pick those guys, but some of my friends picked gangsters.

Marvin Krondon Jones III (Tobias Whale): Life prepares us for every role, no matter what the character is calling for. If you are in tune with yourself and life, the work is there. While preparing for this role, it slowly revealed itself to me that Tobias was in me or I was in Tobias, so I had to do a lot of soul-searching.

As a gold medalist of the 1968 Olympics, Jefferson Pierce appears to be living a very modest life. Why didn’t he capitalize on fame like other athletes?

Akil: I asked [Black Lightning comic book creator] Tony Isabella and he told me how [he made] Jefferson one of the athletes who bowed his head and raised a black-gloved fist during the national anthem at the 1968 Summer Games in Mexico City, just as real-life African-American Olympic sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos did then. [If you remember what happened back then, many Americans were outraged from what Tommie and Carlos did. They received death threats and were suspended from the U.S. team, but neither apologized for it, nor ever felt the need to.] Like them, Jefferson got hit with that. We may explore that in the series later down the line.

Gun violence is a common theme in most comic-book-turned-TV-series. How is Black Lightning addressing this issue differently?

Akil: Young people are being shot, and people are going into churches, schools and movie theaters killing people. Gun violence in this country is real, and I didn’t want to make it feel good when viewers watched it on the show. I didn’t want shootings of just aliens or faceless folks but people that viewers would become familiar with and begin to care about. It’s one thing to read it [in the comic book], but it’s another to watch it because it affects you in a different way [for both the cast and viewers]. And that’s what I wanted.

Early in the series, Jefferson is pulled over by a white cop for essentially being a black man. Why was it important for you to have this scene in the series?

Akil: A lot of my black police officer friends get pulled over by the police. Before they can say that they are officers too, they have to be black first and hope that the person coming to the window is not affected with the disease of racism to the point that they pull the trigger before asking questions.

What’s your thought process in playing a black police officer in a time when law enforcement doesn’t have the best stigma?

Gupton: It’s the first time in my life where I had to think of what a black law enforcer has to be feeling and thinking when they are confronted with yet another scene of something atrocious that has happened. What is going on in their mind and heart knowing that they probably got into the force wanting to protect and serve the things that are now on fire, but still have to represent this beast. Are they protecting people who are corrupt, or are they corrupt themselves? Obviously, not my character, but what’s their psyche like as a black law enforcement officer at a time where law enforcement is intriguing, to say the least.

With a combination of music from Kendrick Lamar and your son [Yasin or Nasir], why is music such a strong component in Black Lightning?

Akil: You can’t separate us [black people] from music. It got us through slavery, Jim Crow laws, [racism and inequality]. Music has always been a part of who we are as people and as a culture and inherently gave America its most original music. People get upset when I say this, but we are the American dream. James Brown and Miles Davis aren’t black music. They’re so much bigger than that. It originated in America, so it’s American music. It’s about how you want to characterize it, and I characterize it as a gift to America. It’s the most American thing that we have, so we need to take ownership of that.

In the story of heroism, everyone doesn’t have superpowers but everyone plays a part. What is your advice to the average Jane and Joe who want to be part of the fight in making the world a better place?

China Anne McClain (daughter Jennifer Pierce): There’s always something that you in your own uniqueness can bring to the world. Find what that is and go for it. Don’t take no for an answer. Whatever is it that you want to tackle, do it because you can.

James Remar (Peter Gambi, Jefferson’s father figure, mentor and tailor): Stick by your truth and be guided by love. When we start to bend our personal truth and the truth out of mouths, that’s when we start to get into trouble.

Jones: Everyone has the power to fight for justice and change, whether you are a single parent, student, police officer or even the bad guy. What we’re seeing in the series is that everyone has a bit of superhero in them. It’s a choice.

Gupton: People can vote, volunteer, teach and connect. I consider those superpowers. My mom is a lawyer, and I see that as her superpower. Hopefully, we have the power to bring together the theme of family, community and togetherness to connect with this series.

Adams: Heroism doesn’t always get the thanks that it should. We have teachers who are working at schools with not a lot of funding and using their own [low] wages to buy supplies. And even the people who ran into strangers’ homes to help them get out during the recent California fires. These are the unsung heroes.

Meet the cast of the CW’s Black Lightning

The tragic loss of Erica Garner Garner’s own loss of her father made her a woman her family wants remembered as a ‘human: mother, daughter, sister, aunt … She only pursued right, no matter what. No one gave her justice.’

It’s cruelty befitting a Greek tragedy.

A young grief-stricken daughter reluctantly transforms herself into an activist after her father is killed by police during a controversial encounter — a struggle in which the officer chokes the very life from the father, apparently deaf to his repeated gasps of “I can’t breathe.”

Three years pass, the daughter, now an outspoken hero to countless others who have lost loved ones at the hands of police brutality, is a high-profile face for an insistent new police reform movement called Black Lives Matter.

Then, in a twist of fate that mirrors her martyred father’s horrifying demise, the daughter herself is felled by a heart attack brought on by a breath-depriving asthma attack. As if to compound her family’s seemingly endless suffering, the daughter dies during the holidays, Christianity’s celebrated season of miracles, wherein the faithful are offered a path to redemption.

That is the heart-shattering story of Erica Garner. In 2014, the then-23-year-old was thrust into the global spotlight when her father Eric Garner died from an illegal choke hold after resisting arrest by New York police. Eric Garner’s videotaped dying words; “I can’t breathe” became a rallying cry for the anti-police brutality movement, helping to fuel the Black Lives Matter crusade for police reform.

That 2014 choke hold reopened a wound in the African-American community, one that is not God-given, but rather inflicted by law officers who vow to “serve and protect.” In his 2013 book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, theologian James H. Cone writes: “In the ‘lynching era’… white Christians lynched nearly five thousand black men and women in a manner with obvious echoes of the Roman crucifixion of Jesus. Yet these ‘Christians’ did not see the irony or contradiction in their actions.” Indeed, as Eric Garner’s death proves, there is a crooked and disingenuous through-line between the Crucifixion and the kangaroo-court justice visited upon blacks since the Jim Crow era. Eric Garner’s death, along with those of many other blacks killed in fatal police encounters, was a chilling reminder that state-sanctioned executions are still a frightening component of African-American life.

Into this millenniums-old narrative arrived Erica Garner. The spitting image of her dad, Erica said she even inherited her father’s take-no-guff spirit (“If he had survived what happened to him, he would be out here advocating and doing exactly what I’m doing, if not more,” she once said.) But while she aligned herself with the Black Lives Matter movement, Erica demonstrated a diplomat’s conciliatory grace, carefully framing police brutality as a universal problem that affects everyone. “This is not a black-and-white issue,” she said during a 2014 CNN interview. “This is a national crisis.”

She displayed that same sensibleness when it came to the topic of activism itself. Writing in 2015, Erica urged peace and unity within the police reform movement. “As we activists fight each other, our opposition — from killer cops to corrupt elected officials — upholds this broken system and covers up injustices,” she wrote. “No movement is immune to conflict, but it’s up to every last person on the side of justice to make the decision to move forward together.”

It was Erica’s yin-yang combination of persistence and political savvy that prompted many to post condolences and tributes upon news of her death. Rev. Al Sharpton described her as “a fearless outspoken activist that never stopped fighting for justice for her father,” while Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders tweeted: “Though Erica didn’t ask to be an activist, she responded to the personal tragedy of seeing her father die while being arrested in New York City by becoming a leading proponent for criminal justice reform and for an end to police brutality.” Her family commented, “When you report this you remember she was human: mother, daughter, sister, aunt … She only pursued right, no matter what. No one gave her justice.”

Nor, it seems, did destiny give Erica a fair shake. The world had a scant three years to know Erica, yet she shined brightly during her short time on the international stage. Her father’s death was such a cause célèbre that many people would have excused her for simply expressing inchoate rage over her dad’s mistreatment at the hands of police. Yet instead of being consumed by anger, Erica became of an insistent voice of reason during one of the most racially sensitive periods in America’s modern history.

Her entry into activism was a veritable trial by fire, a learn-as-you-go experience. “It was something that happened basically overnight,” Erica recently told New York Magazine. “I started out with protests, small little gatherings outside the post office … and then I traveled to different cities to talk about this issue with local communities and elected officials.”

Spurred by grief and indignation — she said she watched the video of her father’s death “over and over again” — Erica helped organize a 2014 “die-in” at the Staten Island location where her dad was killed. There, she and other protesters lay on the cold pavement, creating a haunting tableau vivant in tribute to the scores of citizens injured or killed during police encounters. She continued to lead a series of weekly marches at that same spot, all conducted after 6 p.m. to increase participation from workaday nine-to-fivers. Erica claimed the New York Police Department attempted to dissuade her and others from marching. “They’ve stopped protesters from coming across the water [to march],” she told NBC News. “They’ve followed me in unmarked cars, and even barricaded the Supreme Court steps so people will think [the march] isn’t happening.”

Erica was applying increasing pressure on one of the world’s most assertive law enforcement agencies, the New York City Police Department, which has been consistently dogged by accusations of institutional racism. Evidence has revealed that blacks and Hispanics make up most of the citizens stopped for street interrogations allowed under the department’s stop-and-frisk policies. Since the 1980s, the department has made international headlines for fatal encounters involving blacks, including Eleanor Bumpers, Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell, and countless more. In 2004, the department acknowledged the existence of an intelligence unit designed to perform surveillance on rappers and others involved in the city’s hip-hop scene. This is the police organization Erica fearlessly challenged during her stint as an activist.

But not only was Erica was courageous, she also demonstrated an impressive knack for diplomacy. In a tremendously polarized nation where taking a stand against police brutality often results in accusations of being “anti-police,” Erica’s agitating for justice was no small risk. To have any hope of earning sympathy from her reflexively unsympathetic critics, she suppressed whatever rage she must have been feeling, opting instead to coolly advocate for due process. And when due process failed her family, she continued to press for justice. “People ask, ‘When will you stop marching?’ ” Erica said. “ ‘What do you want from marching?’ He was my father. I will always march.”

Erica’s cause was taken up by pro athletes, including NBA stars LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Kyrie Irving and more. Eric Garner’s dying sighs of “I can’t breathe” became a galvanizing slogan for the Black Lives Matter movement. Before long, Erica was fielding interview requests and speaking invitations from schools, colleges, churches and social justice organizations. She made television appearances, both nationally and in her native New York. After a grand jury declined to indict the officer involved, the Garner family brought a wrongful-death lawsuit against New York City, winning a $5.9 million settlement.

While Erica may have been soft-spoken, she was fiercely independent. When many blacks threw their support behind Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, Erica raised eyebrows for backing Bernie Sanders, citing the Vermont senator’s long-standing civil rights record. At the time of her death, she was in the process of starting a nonprofit to identify and endorse candidates sympathetic to the cause of police reform.

Like Rodney King — himself a police brutality victim who pleaded for peace amid the havoc of the 1992 Los Angeles riots — Erica never sought to become a civil rights lightning rod. She occasionally let her frustration slip, like in 2017 when she voiced her exasperation with the Department of Justice. (“The DOJ literally gathered my family in one place,” she tweeted, “after we have been waiting for answers for 3 years to say they cant answer S—!”). By all appearances, Erica was catapulted into activism by her father’s death, and was carried along by her own grit and a sense of purpose. “I had no idea what I was doing, but I connected with the right people and went from there,” she said.

By and large, Erica wore the mantle she assumed with powerful restraint. Now, the pain many of us felt after viewing her father’s protest-prompting death is magnified by Erica’s own passing. The hurt we experienced after her dad’s killer was let off the hook is now magnified by the knowledge that Erica’s two kids will grow up without their mother.

The daughter who tirelessly sought justice for her slain father has gone to join him in the afterlife, all too soon.

Recy Taylor, subject of new documentary about the rape of black women during Jim Crow, has died 97-year-old was at a nursing home in the same Alabama town where she had been attacked

Recy Taylor, the subject of the new documentary The Rape of Recy Taylor, died Thursday morning at a nursing home in Abbeville, Alabama. She was 97.

Her brother Robert Lee Corbitt, 81, confirmed her death.

‘The Rape of Recy Taylor’ explores the little-known terror campaign against black women

Taylor was one of countless black women who were raped by white men during Jim Crow. In 1944, when she was walking home from church one evening, she was kidnapped, blindfolded and assaulted by six white men. Rosa Parks, working as a local NAACP official, came to Abbeville to agitate for the prosecution of Taylor’s attackers. None of them was ever indicted.

In addition to being the subject of the Nancy Buirski documentary, which debuted this year at the New York Film Festival, Taylor was a central figure in a book by historian Danielle McGuire, At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance — A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power. McGuire’s book traces how anti-rape activism in the South helped fuel the civil rights movement.

After the attack, Taylor spent most of her adult years in Winter Haven, Florida. Her family moved her back to Abbeville when she was 93 because she began to suffer from dementia.

“She was a Christian all of her life,” Corbitt said by phone Thursday afternoon. “She kept us in church all that time. I live about 500 feet from the church where she was going that night, and I’m also a deacon of that church.”

The church, which in 1944 was called Abbeville Holiness Church, is now called Abbeville Memorial Church of God in Christ.

Taylor raised Corbitt and five other brothers and sisters after their mother died when Corbitt was an infant. She is survived by Corbitt and her two remaining sisters, Mary Murry, 90, and Lillie Kinsey, 94, one granddaughter and several great-grandchildren. Her only daughter, Joyce Lee Taylor, died in a car crash in 1967.

Taylor, Corbitt said, “had a very good life,” but she never recovered emotionally from the attack that took place when she was just 24 years old.

After he retired from working as a building maintenance official in New York, Corbitt said he moved back to Alabama to research what happened to his sister and attempt to obtain some measure of justice for her. Corbitt is one of the primary sources for Buirski’s film. Though she was alive during its filming, Taylor only appears near the end, when Corbitt, whom she called “Baby,” went to visit her in her nursing home.

“She would only talk to me,” Corbitt said. “That’s why I dug at it so hard. After I retired, I devoted myself to getting something done about it. We did get an apology from the state of Alabama.”

‘The Rape of Recy Taylor’ explores the little-known terror campaign against black women Just as black men were lynched, black women faced systemic sexual violence under Jim Crow

For Southern black women, the era of separate but equal was also a decades-long reign of white sexual terror. If Southern trees bore strange fruit, the homes and streets they shaded contained secrets that until recently have largely been swept over and ignored.

The Rape of Recy Taylor, a documentary that opens in New York theaters Friday, concentrates some much-needed sunlight on this period of American history and the women who lived through it. Directed by Nancy Buirski, the woman behind both the narrative film Loving and the documentary The Loving Story, The Rape of Recy Taylor brings attention to a little-discussed but common reality for black women in the Jim Crow South: racially motivated rape by white men.

Taylor lived in the small town of Abbeville, Alabama. In 1944, when she was 24, Taylor was walking home from church when she was kidnapped, blindfolded and raped at gunpoint by six white men. Forced to beg for her life, Taylor promised to stay silent so she could go home to her husband and 9-month-old daughter.

But Taylor wasn’t silent. Left on the side of a dark country road, Taylor walked home and told her family about what happened. Rosa Parks, who began her career in civil rights as an anti-rape activist, came to Abbeville to agitate for the prosecution of Taylor’s attackers. For their troubles, Taylor’s home was firebombed, forcing her and her family to move in with relatives. When the family turned to the police, they found no refuge. Rather than pursuing justice, Abbeville’s sheriff circled the home of Taylor’s relatives, eventually stopping to drag Parks out and threaten her with jail if she did not leave town.

It’s a horrifying account, made worse by two startling facts:

1) Taylor’s rape was not an exceptional occurrence. It was part of a continuous campaign of terror that was just as much a threat to women as lynching was to black men.

2) The history of black women as victims of white terror has largely been ignored, silenced and minimized, even as their quest for safety fueled their pursuit of civil rights as far back as the 1890s.

What happened to Taylor and countless other black women and the obscurity of their story within the broader narrative of American history is emblematic of the way black women’s trauma is repeatedly given short shrift even today. The absence of black women from the spotlight of #MeToo has historical roots that predate Taylor’s rape. Taylor’s story isn’t just about her. It’s about thousands of women just like her whose stories we may never know, who were victimized and brutalized without recognition or recompense for their injuries.

A campaign of terror

Buirski’s documentary focuses on Taylor’s life and the devastation that followed her attack: Her marriage fell apart, she was unable to have more children and her only child died in her early 20s in a car crash. The book that inspired the film is far more expansive and devastating. Historian Danielle McGuire spent a decade researching At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance — a New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power. She writes of more than 40 separate cases but insists there are far more stories that went untold, calling her work “the tiniest tip of the iceberg.”

“Between 1940 and 1965,” McGuire wrote, “only 10 white men were convicted of raping black women or girls in Mississippi despite the fact that it happened regularly.” It was rare for white men to be arrested for attacking black women, and even less likely for all-white grand juries to indict them. Convictions were even rarer.

“These are not just bad apples,” McGuire told me during a recent interview. “This is part of a systemic approach to dehumanizing black women and girls.”

In one chapter, McGuire detailed an attack against Melba Pattillo, a 12-year-old Arkansas girl. A white man chased her into the woods, tried to pull off her underwear and rape her, and yelled, “I’ll show you n—-s the Supreme Court can’t run my life.” The attack happened on May 17, 1954, the afternoon the Supreme Court announced its decision in Brown v. Board of Education.

In the same chapter, McGuire recounted the story of Annette Butler. On Mother’s Day 1956, four men in Tylertown, Mississippi — Ernest Dillon, Ollie Dillon (his brother) and their friends Olen Duncan and Durora Duncan (who were cousins) — went searching for a black woman to rape. Armed with a shotgun, they entered the house of Stennis Butler, a black sharecropper, and took his 16-year-old daughter, Annette, holding off her mother at gunpoint. The men drove her away deep into a swamp, raped her, then left her to find her own way home. They were charged with “forcible ravishment and kidnap.” Ernest Dillon pleaded guilty to assault and was sentenced to 20 years in prison. The other three men served no jail time for rape. One pleaded guilty to kidnapping, another was acquitted despite a confession and the third had his charges dismissed after his trial produced a hung jury.

At best, white law enforcement officials were lackadaisical about investigating sexual assaults on black women. At worst, they were perpetrating such assaults, not only on public streets but also in jails.

“These are not just bad apples. This is part of a systemic approach to dehumanizing black women and girls.”

In March 1949, Gertrude Perkins, 25, was assaulted by two Montgomery, Alabama, police officers. She was walking home in the dark when they stopped her, accused her of public drunkenness and forced her into their car. They drove, McGuire wrote, to the edge of a railroad embankment and raped her at gunpoint.

Even if men were convicted of rape, the political system found ways to excuse them. According to Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow, Cole Blease, the governor of South Carolina from 1910-14, made prolific use of his pardoning powers, issuing 1,700 during his tenure. Blease pardoned both black and white men who had been convicted of attacking black women and girls. In an official pardoning statement, Blease stated, “I am of the opinion, as I have always been, and have very serious doubt as to whether the crime of rape can be committed upon a negro.”

McGuire details how rape was used with lynching to terrorize and subjugate black people in the years leading up to and during the civil rights movement. Other historians, such as Darlene Clark Hine, have stated that the onslaught of interracial sexual violence visited upon Southern black women during Jim Crow was just as much a motivator for the Great Migration as lynching was.

“If you have a slave culture for hundreds of years, what happens when slavery ends?” McGuire said. “Does the culture change? That was part of my question doing this research, and the answer was of course it didn’t. White men were raised to believe that they could do whatever they wanted to do to black women and there would be no punishment, and when they did whatever they wanted to do, there usually wasn’t a punishment. These are lessons handed down from grandparents and fathers, uncles. They were encouraged to get a black woman for their first sex act so that they could practice … in the ’40s, they just picked them up on the side of the road just like Recy Taylor.

“It happened all the time.”

Disappearing history

If the violation of black women was so widespread that it contributed to one of the most monumental migration patterns in American history, why don’t more people know about it? How did our understanding of black women and interracial rape begin with slavery and end largely with the conclusion of the Civil War?

There are multiple reasons for this absence: Race men like Booker T. Washington didn’t think civil rights organizations had a role to play in protecting black women from rape. White women’s organizations were equally reluctant to acknowledge that their husbands and sons were attacking black women. White women like Rebecca Latimer Felton, America’s first female senator, not only ginned up fear that black men were raping white women en masse, they sucked away attention from the real epidemic of rape that was actually occurring.

Furthermore, the documentation of abuse was limited. Often, stories of abuse were passed down orally by grandmothers and mothers. Even now, it’s difficult for historians to find detailed, written accounts of these attacks. McGuire referred to it as “detective work.”

And these threats weren’t memorialized in song, as was lynching in Billie Holiday’s 1939 recording of “Strange Fruit.” If there were references, they were so oblique as to require their own decoder ring.

Even in places dedicated to telling the story of black American history such as the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., or the Great Blacks in Wax Museum in Baltimore, there is limited acknowledgment of interracial rape during Jim Crow, and certainly not as a reality endemic to black Southern life.

The Blacks in Wax Museum has an entire room dedicated to the horrors of lynching, which includes a re-creation of the murder of Mary Turner and her 8-month-old fetus in Brooks County, Georgia, but nothing specifically about the rape of black women during Jim Crow. The Blacksonian does include displays of news clippings about the assaults on Taylor in 1944 and Perkins in 1949. And it also produced videos that include quotes from Ida B. Wells and Dorothy Height about the threat black women faced.


While black women such as Wells, Mary Church Terrell, Nannie Helen Burroughs and Anna Julia Cooper were all devoted to mobilizing to secure black women’s safety from sexual violence in the 1890s, they’re remembered chiefly as anti-lynching activists or as buttoned-up practitioners of respectability politics. The same goes for their ideological sisters who came later, like Parks and Height.

In her speech as the first president of the National Association of Colored Women, Terrell addressed their estrangement from the rest of society.

“We wish to set in motion influences that shall stop the ravages made by practices that sap our strength, and preclude the possibility of advancement,” she said, referring to rape by white men.

Cooper bitterly implicated black men in black women’s victimization. “It is absurd,” she said in 1892 in A Voice From the South, “to quote statistics showing the Negro’s bank account and rent rolls, to point to the hundreds of newspapers edited by colored men, and lists of lawyers, doctors, professors, D.D.’s L.L.D.’s etc. etc. etc while the source from which the life-blood of the race is to flow is subject to the taint and corruption of the enemy’s camp.”

While the national office of the NAACP was working to dismantle separate-but-equal, the organization determined that any mention of interracial marriage or sex would derail its efforts. “Everything had to be as asexual as possible,” McGuire said. “Working on rape cases of black women who had been assaulted by white men would screw that up.”


There is so much photographic evidence of lynching, in part because it was a public spectacle, complete with photographers who profited from the murder of black people the way modern artists might sell concert posters. Genitals and other body parts of black men were preserved in jars and kept as mementos. Their charred bodies, hanging from trees, served as ominous warnings to other black people that they best remember their place.

But there is little visual record of the interracial rape of black women, save for photographs of them clutching their obviously biracial children. In The Rape of Recy Taylor, Buirski offers these images as a small record of an enormous epidemic.

We use art to document and memorialize the human condition. But the art that preserves the experience of black women during Jim Crow is limited and often deliberately opaque. The race films of the early 20th century are among the few remaining cultural artifacts that re-created black women’s experiences under threat from white men. Buirski employs their footage in her documentary.

But, by and large, the work of tracking and quantifying interracial sexual assault is difficult for historians. The language referring to such attacks in first-person accounts is often not explicit, although news clippings from the black press were clearer. Furthermore, there was a concerted effort to silence and discredit black female victims. That silencing was often twofold: first in the primary documents, such as white newspapers and police reports, and then again by white historians and archivists who may have deemed such accounts unworthy of preservation. In Taylor’s case, her attackers slandered and dismissed her as a prostitute whom they paid.

There is little visual record of the interracial rape of black women, save for photographs of them clutching their obviously biracial children.

“There wasn’t a good uniform record keeping of these kinds of assaults, largely because of racist police forces that didn’t take black women’s stories seriously, and also because a lot of these assailants were police officers,” McGuire said. “Sometimes within their own community there would be perhaps shame and silence in coming forward for a crime like this just because of the gender politics of the time, which were not limited to racial groups.”

When sexual violation was recorded, survivors often recounted their experiences through allusion. A woman might not say she was raped, but that a man “talked under my dress” or “played with my body.”

While “Strange Fruit,” the dirge made famous by Holiday, is the most recognizable protest song of the lynching era, there is no such work from the era that deals so explicitly with the threat of rape. Instead, in the same way historians must read between the lines of slave narratives, oral histories and other accounts of rape, so too must those examining art of the era. And so songs such as Nina Simone’s chilling rendition of “Pirate Jenny” and Aretha Franklin’s “At the Dark End of the Street” take on more sinister undertones when interpreted through this lens. They’re both songs appropriated by black women to tell different stories from the ones they were originally telling. The difference in tone, phrasing and the style in which these songs are sung is designed to evoke a dark, unsettling horror.

That sort of opaque doublespeak was another form of self-preservation. Anything other than silence could be punished with death. Remember, Taylor’s attackers firebombed her home because she told her husband what happened to her. Just as it was de rigueur to ignore that slaveholders owned fair-skinned children who bore their features and mannerisms, it became standard to look at black women during Jim Crow and ignore the obvious source of their lighter-skinned children.

Modern implications

There are through lines from the epidemic of sexual assault during Jim Crow to our modern era. The most obvious may be the case of Daniel Holtzclaw, the Oklahoma police officer who sexually preyed on poor women of color with criminal records. His predation was directly connected to the way law enforcement made black women’s lives worse. If black women weren’t directly victimized by police, their assaults weren’t taken seriously, which is why white men were so rarely prosecuted for them.

Even the current #MeToo moment is different for white and black women.

“I think the floodgates have opened for white women,” actress Gabrielle Union recently told The New York Times about #MeToo. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence whose pain has been taken seriously. Whose pain we have showed historically and continued to show. Whose pain is tolerable and whose pain is intolerable. And whose pain needs to be addressed now.”

The Equal Justice Initiative is behind the national lynching memorial that will open in 2018 in Montgomery. An official from EJI told me the organization has plans for “an entire section dedicated to the sexual exploitation of black women, including Ms. Recy Taylor” in its Legacy Museum, which will open on April 26. But it doesn’t appear that there are plans to include sexual violence against black women in the lynching memorial, which will exist alongside the museum.

“I don’t think they need to be separate because, again, it’s part of the same terror structure, systematic terror against black people,” McGuire said. “Part of the issue that I’ve always had with cold case civil rights investigations and even in some ways the Equal Justice Initiative’s focus on lynching is that it becomes heavily gendered and is another way of kind of disappearing black women’s experiences under a regime of white supremacy and American apartheid. By focusing on those kinds of cases only, we’re not getting a full picture of the reign of terror that existed and that was inflicted upon black communities and black bodies. It ends up focusing on what happened to black men.”

Even as she was decrying lynching, Wells made a similar point in 1900 to a crowd gathered in Chicago.

“The negro has been too long associated with the white man not to have copied his vices as well as his virtues,” Wells said. “But the negro resents and utterly repudiates the efforts to blacken his good name by asserting that assaults upon women are peculiar to his race. The negro has suffered far more from the commission of this crime against the women of his race by white men than the white race has ever suffered through his crimes. Very scant notice is taken of the matter when this is the condition of affairs. What becomes a crime deserving capital punishment when the tables are turned is a matter of small moment when the negro woman is the accusing party.”

The way these stories were silenced reinforces a social hierarchy that contends black women should be grateful for attention from white men, even if it’s unsolicited or unwanted. Worse, it tells the world that black women and the assaults on us simply don’t matter. Ignoring this area of history has enormously harmful consequences, feeding into how we process accusations of sexual assault from black women today.

The rape of Recy Taylor and so many other unnamed, unrecognized and unheard black women reminds me of Cooper’s words from 1892: “Only the black woman can say ‘when and where I enter, in the quiet, undisputed dignity of my womanhood, without violence and without suing or special patronage, then and there the whole … race enters with me.’ ”